The Security Council: Breaking the Reform Logjam: Terence O'Brien Provides a Brief Stock-Take on the United Nations' Primary Security Institution

By O'Brien, Terence | New Zealand International Review, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

The Security Council: Breaking the Reform Logjam: Terence O'Brien Provides a Brief Stock-Take on the United Nations' Primary Security Institution


O'Brien, Terence, New Zealand International Review


How effective, and how representative, is the UN Security Council today? These are continual questions. The answers depend, partly at any rate, on the viewpoint of the questioner. How, for example, does one actually judge the Security Council in the light of the 2003 decision to launch war against Iraq, given the council's failure to agree to that action? Does the experience prove the irrelevance of the Security Council in the face of an obdurate ruthless dictator, Saddam Hussein, who had flouted UN decisions? Or does the experience rather prove the intrinsic worth of the Security Council, which withheld endorsement of an attack that was launched for perceptibly dubious, even deliberately misleading, reasons and produced gruesome instability in Iraq and beyond?

There is room here, obviously, for different opinion. The issue of how the international community actually authorises the use of legitimate military force in today's world is, nonetheless, one of the big questions for modern international relations. It is obvious that the UN system relies vitally upon the support and fidelity of large powerful member governments which, understandably, are concerned that it serves their national interests. Yet the temptations for such governments to ignore the system and act unilaterally in situations where decisive action is deemed necessary are very real--as Iraq demonstrates. But it is equally clear that acceptance by the global community of leadership by powerful nations in the modern, liberal, values driven, democratising world depends upon the perceived legitimacy of their actions. Whenever such leadership is tempted to ignore established institutions, rules and standards of behaviour, it risks exerting tyranny; and becomes in effect, leadership that is militantly asserted, and not leadership bestowed by the community of states. It is improbable that any powerful government can sustain this kind of leadership without defections and challenge.

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The relevance of the Security Council rests still, therefore, upon its place as the source of legitimacy for international action. In our democratising world, checks and balances on executive authority and the separation of civil and military powers are much valued for fair and principled government at the level of the individual state. At the international level, in a unipolar world, the Security Council provides in its own way an opportunity for checks and balances on the exercise of global power. In 2005 UN heads of government asserted the continued relevance of UN Charter provisions as they relate to preservation of international peace and security. That decision fortifies the Security Council role as a source of legitimacy for the authorisation of the use of force.

Enduring cornerstone

Yet the council's inability to agree to act in situations of blatant need, like Zimbabwe, Mynamar or Rwanda, proves a point yet again that the sanctity of national sovereignty remains for many countries, the weak and the powerful alike, a cornerstone for their sense of security. UN authorisation of non-consensual outside intervention, it is feared by many, will demolish this principle. But security of the human individual is increasingly recognised as a vital legitimate international concern. Creative solutions to the dilemma of sovereign immunity have, therefore, involved the devising of a new principle for international behaviour--the 'responsibility to protect' vulnerable populations from genocide and crimes against humanity. Such an imaginative ethic for behaviour avoids the controversial claim of the 'right to intervene' with its more blatant implication of overriding national sovereignty. But international consensus about the new ethic remains thus far very fragile.

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The Security Council was created, of course, at a time in history when the overriding international concern was prevention of conflict between states. …

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